For Powell, A Long Path To a Victory

By Karen DeYoung
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, November 10, 2002

Secretary of State Colin L. Powell won two victories on Friday. The most obvious was the unanimous United Nations Security Council approval of tough new weapons inspections in Iraq, a major international achievement for the Bush administration.

But perhaps the sweeter victory for Powell was his vindication as the leader of President Bush's foreign policy team.

After a string of losses to administration hard-liners on issues ranging from the Middle East and Iran to U.S. funding for international population programs, and increasingly public questions about whether he was headed toward resigning, Powell alone stood at President Bush's side in the White House Rose Garden just after the U.N. decision in New York, basking in presidential praise of his "leadership, his good work and his determination" in securing the 15-0 vote.

No one, including Powell, believes the intramural battles over Iraq are over. Iraqi President Saddam Hussein's compliance with the resolution, if it happens at all, is expected to be grudging and open to interpretation at every turn. U.S. war plans remain on the table. Even inside the State Department, few believe that Hussein will comply with intrusive new inspections, and there is a feeling that the administration will inevitably confront a decision on war.

Word of new inspections has elicited no comment from the Pentagon. But in Powell's camp, at least, officials are now optimistic that if war does come, it will be an internationally supported effort rather than what many in the world worried would be the vengeful, unilateral strike of an obsessed superpower. And while the administration battle lines are still deeply drawn between the more aggressive views of how to deal with Iraq, represented by Vice President Cheney and Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, and those, led by Powell, who favor at least trying to achieve international consensus, the past three difficult months appear to have helped achieve a more orderly means of decision-making.

As far as Powell is concerned, the National Security Council structure designed to synthesize differences among Cabinet officials worked effectively. National security adviser Condoleezza Rice, whose authority in dealing with such high-powered players has long been questioned in Washington, was seen across the board as a fair arbiter in presenting all views to Bush.

In the end, despite the bellicose rhetoric of some senior officials, a certain pragmatism won out.

"Nothing in this administration is calm sailing," said one senior diplomat in Washington. "It is deeply, ideologically split. But in a curious way, common sense has asserted itself thus far. . . . It's really quite extraordinary. Powell is still at it, Rice has held the center," and Bush, far from his original instincts, "has managed to rebuild the Security Council."

At each key decision point over the past three months -- whether to go to the United Nations in the first place; whether to seek a new resolution against Iraq or simply declare that its violation of past demands for disarmament justified immediate U.S. military action; whether to compromise with the views of other nations -- Bush was confronted with opposing views from his top advisers.

And as recounted in interviews with senior White House, State and Defense officials and foreign diplomats, it was a process whose outcome was in doubt every step of the way.

Iraq returned to the front burner in Washington over the summer after a hiatus during the Afghan war. Most of the talk focused on growing U.S. preparations for war, which provoked by late August a torrent of international calls for Bush not to "go it alone" in attacking Iraq.

In fact, Bush had already decided by that point that he would take his case to the United Nations, overruling administration skeptics who worried that diplomacy would enmesh, and possibly derail, the drive for a military takedown of Hussein's government. Looming large, senior administration officials say, was the case made by Powell during a private White House dinner on Aug. 5, alone with Bush and Rice.

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